Sunday, September 16, 2012

Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow, by Maria Coffey

In Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Maria Coffey reminds us of the consequences of high-stakes mountaineering. She interviews a long list of climbers and their families (focusing somewhat on the '70s British climbing scene she was an intimate part of) to root out the effects a professional mountaineer's career has on the family. Additionally, she updates the reader on her progress (and Hilary Boardman's) on overcoming the loss of her love high on Everest, that she first wrote about in Fragile Edge: A Personal Portrait of Loss on Everest. The book works its way towards more serious matters, first discussing the effects of a climbing career on family relationships, and working towards the effects that mortification and death have had on families of climbers. She gets professional mountaineers to admit to some pretty surprising things; the most shocking interviews, however, come from the climbers' family members, who almost universally seem adversely affected by their loved one's career, even when the climber comes home in sterling condition.

Coffey interviews a number of well-known Everest personalities, including Tom Hornbein (who writes the introduction), Ed Viesturs, Ed Webster, Stephen Venables, Eric Simonson, and Kurt Diemberger, among others. Her personal story, of course has quite a bit to do with the mountain as well. She discusses Webster's and Venables' Kangshung Face climb (see Webster's Snow in the Kingdom or Venable's Everest: Alone at the Summit) and the effects their frostbite had on their outlook and their careers. She also mentions Carlos Buhler's mother's tracking him down during his attempt on the Kangshung Face. She discusses Viesturs' Annapurna climbs, as they were his current project, and Diemberger talks about his career in general, as he has so many climbs to reflect upon. (I wish I could have read more about Buhl's or Tullis' death from him...) She also spends a number of pages on Conrad Anker's assuming the patriarchal role in Alex Lowe's family after surviving the avalanche that killed Lowe.

Like Fragile Edge, this is a difficult book to read, yet it is engrossing. So little is said about the families of climbers in the traditional literature that they almost seem unimportant. (Dougal Haston's wife, Annie, warrants a single sentence in his autobiography, In High Places, for example.) Coffey proves that the literature has its priorities backwards, as the greatest suspense and the most affecting tragedies happen back home and the greatest effect a climber has is generally on his family rather than his partner(s). The stakes are much higher than life and death, as the people who have to endure the loss of a great climber are almost always nowhere near the mountain. Thanks to Maria Coffey for bringing such an important topic to light!

Coffey is also the author of Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes and What the Reveal About Near Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond.

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